April 13, 2000
By Marlene Adler Marks
I've been speaking to Jewish groups around the country this year and have been privileged to see firsthand the wealthy, cultured, creative and charitable communal life that previous generations could only dream about.
Yet even against this backdrop of privilege and sophistication, many of us are provincial. We think we know what a Jew looks like (Jews-by-choice are putting that to the test), how a Jew eats (Sephardim are expanding that notion) and certainly where a Jew lives.
That's why a brief visit with the Jews of Wichita, Kan., is a healthy shock to the system. One day, city slickers like me are going to get over the idea that Jews are safe only in urban centers with good Chinese restaurants. Might as well be now.
Wichita, Kan. Population: 300,000, including 1,000 Jews. This is the outback, far off the beaten track of our spiritual imaginations. Yet the west was settled by Jews, one shopkeeper at a time. Leonard Hays, a retailer, settled in Wichita in 1868. The first, but not the last, Jewish mayor was Sol Kohn, in 1879. No doubt Dorothy Gale had a Jewish classmate and her dog, Toto, a Jewish vet.
Being a remote outpost has its challenges. For the annual Deli Day, the Jews of Wichita truck in kosher pastrami from Kansas City, 3 1/2 hours away; though the first synagogue was built in 1870, the non-Jewish locals still call it a "church."
The Bible Belt cinches the country right at Wichita's navel, and Jews, making up .03 percent of an already small population, have no big-city pretensions of calling the shots. Last summer, when the Kansas Board of Education decreed that creationism was a valid theory to be taught in public schools, the liberal coalition, including Jews, was not a large enough coalition to beat it back. In this climate, everyone works overtime; parents provide supplemental education against the evolution controversy. Doctors must be vigilant lest even a life-threatening tubal pregnancy be considered an abortion. Even children are role models to a general population where Jews are rarer than shade trees.
Still, though maybe it's the brilliant cherry blossoms bursting this spring, from what I can see, the Jews think they have it good. Old mercantile families like the Lewins have moved away, but they've been replaced by aerospace engineers, professors at Wichita State University, surgeons and psychologists.
"When you move here, you know what you're getting into," said Joan, one community leader. "That's what makes the Jewish community in Wichita so great. Everyone needs each other."
Choice is the key. No one forces you to be there, and this volunteer spirit still attracts a pioneering, hard-working breed. Wichita has the requisite two synagogues (the second being the one you'll never s foot in), which share one Hebrew school, including students who drive an hour or more across the prairie to attend (Sen. Arlen Specter, now of Pennsylvania, was once one of them; he comes from neighboring Russell).
The Jewish Federation raises $400,000 a year, a per capita donation rate about four times that of Los Angeles. The community resettled more than 125 Russian Jews, providing them not only with money, jobs and homes, but people to drive them around each week until they got settled.
And everyone is on the move: I heard more talk about Jewish leadership events in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Israel than I usually hear about in L.A.
In the end, however, this place can be home. The big talk in Wichita these days is not the death of Darwin, but the rebirth of the arts. The beautiful new Exploration Place opened on the banks of the Arkansas River last month, designed by Israeli architect Moshe Safdi, known for the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
Of course there are sensitivities that come from being small in number. A controversial production of "The Merchant of Venice" is playing in the building that once housed the town's first synagogue. The problem: Is Shylock being portrayed "too nice?"
And Barry Levinson's movie "Liberty Heights" just opened (six months late), leaving some concern that non-Jews will think all Jews still buy a new car on Yom Kippur.
For all this, I was amazed at the emphatic civic boosterism. The Wichita Eagle on Sunday editorialized that the city was now "exciting," and the local Jewish population is certainly sharing that sensation. Like the newspaper, Jewish parents and activists claim moral victory in the passage last week of a $284.5 million bond issue to finally air condition and improve city schools that date back to the beginning of the 20th century. Education is a Jewish issue that knows no state bounds.
I asked everyone I met about creationism, as if to discover why the rise of fundamentalists hasn't scared them off. The answer: well, this is the Bible Belt, duh. And the more I heard this answer, the more I understood: such challenges are the cost of liberty. Thanks to the prairie Jews, for proving how free we can be.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal.
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.